As I ease into covering some of San Diego’s biggest government agencies, I’ve been keeping close tabs on many related Twitter accounts for a few weeks.

What’s become clear: Some of these agencies “get” it, some don’t and many float between those extremes.

Running a government social media account is an important but thankless job, a public service few people notice beyond a fleeting glance.

There’s the difficult task of competing for clicks with established media outlets, and establishing your agency as a credible and compelling source of news on the cheap.

The biggest problem I spotted among the 26 accounts that I surveyed — a mix of city and county agencies and government-related agencies — was a lack of understanding about who the target audience is or why the group is on Twitter.

Here’s a friendly analysis of the greater San Diego area’s best and worst government agency Twitter accounts.

The Best

San Diego County (@sandiegocounty) government clearly understands social media. The county’s tweets are informative, conversational and engaging.

Take, for example, these two tweets, which anticipate constituents’ needs and direct them to where they can receive assistance:

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Or these two tweets, which invite readers to engage with narratives about complex issues that affect the county:

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Or this tweet, which I shamelessly clicked on because, well, I like cats:

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A great government Twitter account turns an impermeable bureaucracy into an open and accessible forum for civic dialogue. It shows the public that their civil servants are real people, not form-letter generating robots.

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Chula Vista’s Twitter account (@thinkchulavista) is also noteworthy. Unlike so many government Twitter accounts I’ve seen, Chula Vista’s account interacts with the public. The first thing you notice as you scroll through its Twitter stream is the multidirectional flow of information. Chula Vista retweets news from individuals and community groups that will likely interest the broader community:

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And responds to comments:

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And questions:

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That’s how public service is supposed to work on Twitter.

The Mediocre

For the sake of contrast, let’s look at two Twitter accounts associated with the San Diego Police Department.

The Police Department’s official Twitter account (@sdpolicedept) is hit or miss. Sometimes it clearly and succinctly provides useful information:

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But it has a bad habit of cross-posting from Facebook, which often cuts off the end of a message:

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And leaves you scratching your head:

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Then there’s the San Diego Police Department Twitter account (@SanDiegoPD) that posts crime reports from a public-safety social media network called Nixle — without providing context:

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It’s not clear what the Police Department’s Twitter strategy is. Having two accounts confuses the public, especially when the Nixle-driven account has nearly four times as many followers as the official SDPD account. What’s more concerning is that neither account is following anyone, suggesting that the department has no interest in engaging the public on Twitter.

You can’t just talk at your audience on social media. You have to listen. Otherwise it’s not social media.

The Worst

The Police Department is, at least, making an effort. That’s not really true of the San Diego City Council (@sdcitycouncil) or San Diego city government (@cityofsandiego). The latter wins by a slim margin because it tweeted once — three years ago.

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It’s commendable that so many city staffers and elected officials are on Twitter. But that’s no substitute for a Twitter account that tells you what a government branch or agency does and why that’s important.

Like any medium, Twitter can be a source of digital garbage. But it’s foolish to underestimate Twitter’s importance to the future of democratic government.

You don’t have to guess what citizens want anymore. You just have to pay attention.

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Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

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